That Was the Theater

Updated: Apr 17


Theater’s history presents an epic show of rogues and royals, impresarios and revolutionaries, dazzling spectacle and searing insight, famous flops and legendary performances. Each week a current theat­rical personality will focus on an event, individual, icon, or myth from theater’s past that has inspired, haunted, obsessed, or simply bemused them.




HERE ARE SOME EXAMPLES


FUNNY GIRL

When Barbara Streisand played Fanny Brice (pictured above) in the 1968 film of the musical Funny Girl, it shot her career into superstardom. Beanie Feldstein, the next young up-and-comer to take the role, considers her place carrying on the legacy of these iconic Jewish comediennes.


THE LYCEUM

The Lyceum is Broadway's oldest continuously operating "legitimate theater." Lost to foreclosure in the Great Depression, a syndicate composed of George S. Kaufman, Max Gordon, and Moss Hart bought it back in 1940, and the Shubert Organization has operated it since 1950. Playwright Will Eno, who there had his Broadway debut (The Realistic Joneses), investigates the storied history.


LORRAINE HANSBERRY

"What happens to a dream deferred? Does it dry up like a raisin in the sun?" That line from Langston Hughes poem "Harlem," inspired the title of Lorraine Hansberry's Broadway debut, the first for an African-American woman playwright. Suzan-Lori Parks explores the vital continued conversations around Hansberry's work.



KEAN’S SWORD A coveted relic: the sword first wielded by Edmund Kean in his legendary 19th-century performance of Richard III. Al Pacino tells why this icon has become the sign of a select and shining knighthood.





A LONG NIGHT’S JOURNEY INTO FAME After seeing the Broadway premiere of Eugene O’Neill;s A Long Day’s Journey into Night, Brooks Atkinson wrote that the American theater now enjoys “size and stature.” This epic play took Broadway by storm, and when the curtain fell on opening night, there was no applause, only silence. But as the curtain rose, the audience rose too, showering the actors with bravos. Many rushed the stage reaching out to embrace the experience. O’Neill biographer, Arthur Gelb recounts the glory of that night and the legacy of the play.


BIRTH OF THE SEAGULL The world premiere of The Seagull was so devastating Chekhov swore off playwriting. Antagonized by the hostility of the opening night audience, Vera Komissarzhevskaya, the renowned Russian actress playing Nina, lost her voice and Chekhov spent the last two acts backstage hiding. Yet, two years later, The Moscow Arts Theater under the direction of Stanislavski revived the play to tremendous praise. How can a play, now such a classic, have such a volatile birth? And what elements contributed to the triumph of the second attempt? Ian Rickson, whose recent production of The Seagull galvanized audiences, reflects on the risks, rewards and devastating moments the theater holds and how those factors ultimately make the collaborative process more precarious. No doubt the legendary cast of the Moscow production, pictured here with Chekhov reading the play, including Vsevolod Meyerhold, Olga Knipper and Stanislavski himself, was key to the success of this historic revival.